Talent wise, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens were definitely far more individually talented than Ward. When it comes down to the time for the Hall of Fame voting process, there will be a lot of people out there that will say that Moss and Owens are slam dunks as they truly scared defensive coordinators, and Ward did not.
So in the minds of many, both Moss and Owens qualify as Hall of Famers but Ward is more belonging in the Hall of Very Good. Personally, I consider that a load of bunk. The mythical “Hall of Very Good” is a mythical place and euphemism for fans that are simply ignorant of how good certain players were—especially in this day and age of media overhyping highlights and undervaluing fundamentals.
Randy Moss made plays with athletic ability that no other athlete playing the position ever could. He made multiple QBs look better than they really were; they threw a deep pass up for grabs and it didn’t need to be completely accurate, because Moss could out run or out jump the DB and there was nothing the defense could do about it.
Fortunately, there was one sure fire way of stopping Moss—the fact that he telegraphed the play call by how he either sprinted out of the huddle when the play was called for him or he slumped his way to his spot when he wasn’t involved helped a defense know what was coming. And taking a controlling lead in a game took Moss out of it, because he would quit—a fact that was never more evident than in the 2000 NFC Championship vs. the Giants in a 41-0 loss. Moss told Chris Carter afterward how he would never win a championship with the Vikings and would later go on to outright admit that he played hard only when he wanted to.
He was traded to Oakland where the only thing more abysmal than his performance was his effort. It all seemed to turn around in New England when he set the single season record for TD catches and was a major reason for the Patriots 16-0 season. He certainly kept his effort up, but it didn’t hurt that the Patriots ran the score up on everyone (perhaps Belichick knew it was the only way to keep Moss motivated and interested).
However, come the Super Bowl, the mental toughness—or lack thereof—that was the trademark of his career resurfaced in the Patriots loss. The following year, after the Brady injury, Moss had the perfect chance to showcase maturity and leadership, but he was the same old Moss. He could catch his deep outs, but when Matt Cassell needed him to step up and run another pattern, Moss went lazy on him and dropped passes. In the end, Moss spent his last season with three different teams.
Terrell Owens had a rocky start in San Francisco but eventually emerged as the No. 1 WR on a team featuring the greatest WR to ever play the game in Jerry Rice. However, with each passing year, Owens became more and more of an issue—beginning with his celebration in Dallas after scoring a TD and running to the mid-field star to show up the Cowboys.
I am no Cowboys fan, but even I was appalled by the lack of respect and class (to the point where I cheered for Emmitt when he did the same thing after scoring). Of course, after a second Owens TD, he tried to repeat the process—which resulted in a Cowboys player chasing him down and a fight on the field (all the while, Owens still picked up the ball to showboat).
Owens continued self-indulgence and feud with his QB Jeff Garcia, where he even started questioning the sexual orientation of Garcia, which was a factor in the 49ers decision to trade him. A deal was worked out with the Ravens, but when a better offer came from the Eagles, Owens and his team of lawyers worked the system to negate an agreement that was done in good faith. The Eagles thought that Owens was the missing piece to their puzzle and they jumped out to a 7-0 start, but all it took was one bad week in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers gave the Eagles a beat down, to see the seeds of what was to come with Owens chasing McNabb down on the sideline.
The Eagles reached the Super Bowl and Owens came back from a serious leg injury to a performance for the ages and a Super Bowl MVP level effort—but the loss lingered. Owens distraction, feud with McNabb, disgruntled behavior over his contract all served to take an Eagles team that went to four consecutive NFC Championship Games and bring them down. So far, he wrecked the 49ers, betrayed the Ravens and obliterated the Eagles.
Next on the agenda was the Cowboys, where he accused Romo and Whitten of scheming him out of the offense. By this time, Owens had proven to be able to destroy defenses and teams, including his own. His final two years were one year runs with two teams (Bills and Bengals) desperate to make a run after constant losing and were unremarkable.
Hines Ward came out of Georgia having played RB, QB and WR as a third-round pick to the Steelers. However, Pittsburgh went with WR in the first round the next two years, leaving 1999 first round pick to comment about how he and 2000 first round pick Plaxico Burress were going to be a remarkable pair for years to come.
However, Ward wasn’t about to simply give up his chance because of what round he went in. His hard work and effort made it impossible for him to be taken out of the lineup and he quickly began re-writing the Steelers record book. Ward would have led the NFL in receptions in 2002 save for Marvin Harrison’s ridiculous 2002 record shattering season. When Ben Roethlisberger arrived on the scene, Ward’s statistics suffered a set back as the team focused on winning through running the ball 60 percent of the time, and he took over more of the leadership role.
In a game vs. Dallas, Roethlisberger became overwhelmed in the huddle and Ward took command and called the plays. He signed a contract prior to his breakout 2001 season, his production far outweighed his contract value, but he never became a distraction. After failing to win two AFC Championship Games, he did not quit nor did he tell teammates the team would never win. From 2005-10 (445 receptions, 5647 yards, 42 TDs,) the Steelers would reach the Super Bowl three times, winning twice including the signature moment of his career as he hauled in the game clinching TD pass en route to winning Super Bowl MVP Honors.
But perhaps the most enduring images of his career were his constant smile—no matter what. Ward would take a hit and give one just the same. Labeled by some as a dirty player—the irony is that if Ward took the hits that he gave it would have just been part of the game, but because he didn’t just block by getting in the way, but instead he looked to punish his opponent.
On a game the Ravens put a bounty out on Ward and a rookie Mendenhall (because Mendenhall had rookie enthusiasm about his first start)—Ray Lewis broke the shoulder of Mendenhall and no one said a thing. Ward knocked out Ed Reed straight up and he was called dirty. The reality is Ward played the game with an old style football toughness that has never been seen before by a WR and will never be seen from since. But most of all, no matter what, he gave it his all, sacrificed for the better of the team, mentored his younger teammates and focused on winning—that will be Ward’s legacy.
If you want the production and the baggage of selfishness, quitting and destroying your team’s locker room, Moss or Owens is your guy. But if you want to win and have a leader who embodied toughness, getting the most out of your talent and the leadership to inspire your team to do the same—you probably would want to take Ward.
And so should the Hall of Fame.